A couple years ago, around the first of November, Chaplain Julia of the Jail Ministry invited the women inmates worshiping together in the jail chapel to tell each other about some of their family traditions related to Halloween and All Saints Day. She especially encouraged Maria to explain to us what her friends and family did in Mexico to celebrate the holiday, Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead).
Although Halloween (All Hallows Eve) and All Saints Day are Christian celebrations, different cultures around the world have adapted these days in different ways to incorporate the history and legends of their own societies. In Mexico, ancient Aztec beliefs are incorporated into Dia de los Muertos – the day to honor family members and friends who have departed. An ancient belief is that the gates of heaven are opened on October 31, and all deceased children (angelitos) are allowed to come to earth to spend 24 hours with their families. On November 2, spirits of adults can come down to earth from heaven to join their families for a day of celebration.
In preparation for these heavenly visits, many families set up a special altar in their home and decorate it with pictures of their departed loved ones, along with candles, flowers, fruits, and favorite foods of the departed to entice the spirits to come back home for the day. Some families take the food and decorations to the cemetery, to the graves of their loved ones. Then the extended family has a big picnic in the cemetery with all these special foods. The family spends much of the day reminiscing about their departed loved ones. In spirit, the departed souls join their earthly families for this day of remembrance and celebration.
With a little coaxing from the jail chaplain, Maria told us how her family in Mexico used to celebrate this special holiday. She talked mostly about preparing all the favorite foods of their departed loved ones, and getting together with their relatives at the cemetery for a big picnic and time of reminiscing. It was a very happy family celebration.
I’ve thought about Maria’s story often over the last couple years, especially around Halloween and All Saints Day. I wish we observed a tradition like that in our own culture. I think the closest thing we have to Dia de los Muertos in the U.S. is Memorial Day. Although I put flowers on my parents’ grave for Memorial Day, most of the emphasis of the day is on remembering veterans of U.S. wars. I think of the day as a patriotic holiday more than a family remembrance day.
For All Saints Day this year, I played the organ at the Oakland Cambridge Presbyterian Church. Besides playing the usual “For All the Saints,” I incorporated some old hymns that might prompt us to remember some of the saints who have touched our lives directly, such as our parents and grandparents. When the pastor read the names of the church members who had died in the past year, I played softly on the piano, hymns like “God Be with You Till We Meet Again,” and “Blest Be the Tie that Binds.”
When I got home from church, I thought more about how Maria’s family used to spend the time from October 31 through November 2 in Mexico, a time for remembering the saints of the church, especially the saints who have directly affected them, like parents, grandparents, siblings, and close friends. I decided to celebrate Dia de los Muertos in my mind this year. Maybe we can carry it out in reality next year. I hope so.
I thought about my mom, my dad, and my sister – the three members of my family of origin who are no longer with us on earth.
My mom’s favorite meal (actually, it was the whole family’s favorite meal) was pan-fried chicken, mashed potatoes with gravy, sweet corn (the kind Mom had frozen herself), a fruit salad held together with a sweet fluffy dressing, home-made clover leaf rolls – re-warmed in the oven so butter would melt on them, coffee, and schaum torte with ice cream and strawberries for dessert. That’s the dinner Mom usually made when we had company for Sunday dinner.
Just thinking about all that food makes me hungry for it, and prompts me to remember the wonderful times we had squeezing a dozen or more people around the dining room table to share the meal. I remember mumbling along with everyone as we recited the Norwegian table prayer together – in Norwegian. I never did learn it beyond the first phrase, Jesu Navn gar vi til bords…
I’d love to establish a new tradition for my family for All Saints Day based on the Mexican celebration of Dia de los Muertos. I’m not ready to abandon the tradition of welcoming trick-or-treaters to our house on Halloween, but I’d like to add time on All Saints Day to remember the saints who have personally touched my life, family and friends who are now departed. I’d like to set up a little altar, maybe on the buffet, with some flowers, pictures of the special saints in my life and in Mim’s life. And then, we will have a special dinner with the favorite foods of our saints as we reminisce about them. I can already taste that pan-fried chicken dinner. (Maybe on alternate years, we’ll have to have lutefisk – Mim’s mom’s favorite!)
Thanks, Maria, for giving me the idea…